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County may donate rental assistance funds to city for speedier distribution

Thursday, September 2, 2021 by Seth Smalley

At Tuesday’s meeting, the Travis County Commissioners Court continued to brainstorm ways to spend 65 percent of a federal rental assistance allocation before a U.S. Treasury deadline at the end of September threatens to rescind unused funds. If the 65 percent threshold is not met, all of the remaining unallocated Emergency Rental Assistance Program funds will return to the federal government.

The initial allotment of ERAP funds totaled $10.6 million, of which 65 percent is $6.89 million. So far, the county has spent $1.31 million of that, but says an additional $1.18 million is obligated. Even so, that’s only 23 percent of the money that has been spent or obligated, leaving the county with less than a month to allocate $4.4 million toward rental assistance – a tall order, given that the county has only received 4,789 applications for the program.

County Judge Andy Brown proposed sending up to $2 million of the funds to the city, as local advocate Zenobia Joseph had suggested the previous week.

“I think focusing on September 30 is frankly not the deadline anymore,” Brown said. “I’m interested in making a motion to transferring some amount, maybe up to $2 million, to the city, so that their contractor, who has been getting it out very quickly, can do it more quickly.”

Commissioners discussed the prospect privately with county attorneys during executive session.

Lawrence Lyman, with Health and Human Services, reviewed some of the measures the county is using to accelerate the distribution process.

“As previously noted, the two main things we have done so far is implement greater use of self-attestation, where possible, and we’re also finalizing some processes so we can start using categorical eligibility and fact-based proxies to accelerate eligibility determination,” Lyman said.

While self-attestation lowers bureaucratic barriers by allowing applicants’ own written testimony to qualify them for rental assistance, fact-based proxies use data gathered from other government programs to automatically identify and qualify residents who are eligible for ERA programs. Implementing these together, said Lyman, will help Travis County administer enough rental assistance to get it over the 65 percent threshold.

“We all know that the federal courts decided that the federal eviction moratorium is not in effect,“ Brown said. “I mean, we’ve got real people’s lives who are at real risk of eviction, so I think we need to do everything that we can to prevent more families from being evicted, and part of that is making sure that we’re getting this out as quickly as possible.”

According to Lyman, the county has identified approximately 3,900 households that could be eligible using available data from human support services programs. Another idea he put forward was to start making payments to landlords and utility providers based on estimated rental and utility arrears.

“What we can do is start pushing payments, based on an estimate, and then resolve any discrepancies after the fact,” he said.

Commissioner Brigid Shea, pointing to the example of Shelby County, Tennessee, raised the idea of using bulk settlements to speed up the process of distributing the money.

“They’re looking for complexes where 10 or more tenants are behind on rent, and then they’re using those to get the money out faster,” Shea said. “We’ve got to be figuring out better ways of getting the money out.”

Lyman said Health and Human Services was looking into identifying partners for the bulk settlement option. “I think it’s something we’re going to be able to do,” he said.

“I think this is a hair-on-fire issue,” Shea said. “Please do whatever you need to do to make it a priority.”

Editor’s Note: Andy Brown is on the board of the Capital of Texas Media Foundation, the parent nonprofit of the Austin Monitor.

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